If there is one spot in Nashville that visitors are sure to see when they come to Music City, it that section of downtown Broadway they call Honky-Tonk Heaven, Hillbilly Highway or just simply “The District.”
Consisting of the first five blocks of Lower Broad, plus the side streets branching off on either side, for decades it has been a mecca for lovers of Country music, or those just seeking a good time.
While it has been a favorite haunt of musicians trying to make a name for themselves for as long as anyone can remember, the haunting goes far beyond perspiring minstrels trying to make it in the business.
There abide in the old buildings down there the spirits of old-time country stars, workmen and working girls from another era and even a Civil War ghost or three.
Take Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, for example. It’s smoke-stained walls and beer-stained floors have seen the greats of Country Music pass through its swangin’ doors–not to mention a few Rock stars as well.
Behind it is an ally where the same ghosts are alleged to pass into the old stage door entrance of the Ryman Auditorium–originally the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Across the street are two old record shops that house hidden gold–golden oldies that is. Ernest Tubb used to house the Saturday Night Jamboree. The Jamboree is alive and well but now broadcasts from Music Valley, just across from Opryland Hotel. Downtown, the original store also hosts a jamboree of sorts: the old time musicians still return there on Saturday and haunt the place, even though they’re long dead.
Nearby by Ernest Tubbs was Lawrence Records until recently. Now transformed into Nudie’s Bar, it too has its resident revenants. Nudie does not refer to the undress of the barmaids there–they more or less keep their clothes on–but to the clothing designer Nudie, known for the gaudy costumes he designs for Country stars. They can change the name and change what they sell here, but the spirits remain despite the changes.
Truth be told, just about every old building in downtown Nashville has a resident spook or three.
I cover the District’s ghosts in far more detail in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee than here, but as I wasn’t able to include photos in that book for technical reasons, so I thought I’d post a few here as well as on Pinterest. If you prefer to find out about the ghosts of Lower Broad for yourself, there is no better time of year than now to do it!
Grendel and Bigfoot: Big Hairy Beasts and Where to Find Them
While we normally chronicle all things weird and wonderful about the American South, we are not averse to occasional side trips into other realms of the uncanny. Given that there are abundant reports of Big Foot and his stinky-ass cousins all over the South, it is not too far afield to inquire about that most famous monster from Old English literature, Grendel.
Once upon a time there was an obscure English scholar of Medieval Literature who wrote an obscure paper about a long forgotten Old English epic poem. The poem was Beowulf and the eccentric academic in question was J.R.R. Tolkien. His resurrection of the epic poem started a major re-appreciation of the poem, first by scholars, then by literary critics in general and finally Hollywood, running out of comic books to make into movies and TV shows, grabbed onto Beowulf and ran with it. At last count, I believe there have been three movies made about Beowulf and more recently a TV series, all of which play fast and loose with the original story–but that’s Holly Weird for you. So, in case you have to read it for a class this fall, be warned that the Germanic hero does not have sex with a demonic Angelina Jolie morphed into a dragon, or anything like it. Read the book.
What set this latest inquiry into monsters is an article I came across by a Dark Age scholar chronicling all the (allegedly) legendary monsters who inhabited Medieval Lincolnshire. Bear in mind, on a dark and stormy night, jolly old England in the Dark Ages could be a pretty scary place and she lists quite a few wyrd and uncanny beasts. No doubt J. K. Rowling could raid her blog for more stuff for her sequels. The original blog post is here: “The Monstrous Landscape of Lincolnshire.”
She posted an old illustration of Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, in the post which immediately caught my eye. She connects Beowulf with a local monster or ogre called a byrs or thyrs in Anglo-Saxon. The illustration from a 1908 book (see below) which included the story of Grendel versus Beowulf is strikingly similar to what most eyewitnesses have described as Bigfoot. Now, admittedly, a modern artist’s conception is not proof that the ancient creature called a byrs and which was the term to describe Grendel was the same beast, but it does set one wondering.
Anyone familiar with either or all of my books, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground,Dixie Spirits or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will know I have an abiding interest in Cryptozoology. It is my belief that, more often than not, these legends of strange or uncanny creatures do have a basis in fact. Animals though long extinct, such as the Coelacanth, manage to confound biologists all the time and fossil hunter are always uncovering previously unknown extinct species. So whenever a biologist vehemently denies the existence of one or another creature as legendary, they should always add the qualifier “for now.”
Over the years there have been quite a few Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) sightings in the Mid-South, although they do seem to have tapered off in recent years. I live in a suburban county to Nashville and while I can’t claim to have seen any giant ape-men (or man-apes, depending on your point of view) I have talked to a few who have. Modern Hendersonville, Tennessee is rapidly building up and developing, but one long time resident remembers the time he was walking along Drakes Creek, before the sports complex was built up along it, and finding large claw marks high up on a tree. He is a veteran hunter and knows quite well bear signs; he insisted to me these claw marks were far too high up on the tree for any black or brown bear to have made, even if they had wandered down from the mountains.
Dating from about the same time period is a report filed with BFRO (Big Foot Research Organization) of a multiple person sighting in Hendersonville. When many of the old farms were just beginning to be turned into sub-divisions a group of six people caught a Big Foot in their headlights rummaging through garbage can. When sighted the eight food creature walked away. As noted above, even in 1965 Indian Lake was by no means wilderness, although heavily wooded in parts. The BFRO Report is posted here. Even now, with decades of development, there are still herds of deer that inhabit the area, so a large biped could still have plenty of big game available to feed on if it didn’t mind all the people.
Just north of Hendersonville, a resident of the Beech area also reported a Big Foot crossing an open field just off of Long Hollow Pike. This too was some time back, but Long Hollow Pike meanders through a hilly region and sits below the Highland Rim, an area more conducive to large creatures living and feeding, with abundant fresh water and game to be had. Some time back I charted most of the published Big Foot sightings and they tended to cluster either along the Cumberland Mountains and Highland Rim area or else in the Smokey Mountain region. With economic development and the disappearance of natural habitats, it may well be that the Tennessee Stink Ape is extinct, or nearly so.
So the Stink Ape, or Wooley Booger or byrs or Grendel may be gone from the scene, but that does not necessarily mean they never existed, and for some they continue to exist in memory.
Let’s see: we have looked at Thomas Jefferson and UFO’s and Abraham Lincoln and just about all things paranormal; let’s look at another Southern president’s supernatural encounters: George Washington. Since there is quite a bit out there about George and the uncanny, this promises to be a two part-er, at least.
Today we’ll look at the Washington Prophecy, which is as important as it has been underreported. This obscure incident from the American Revolution uncannily fore-shadows, not only the American Civil War, but possibly both world wars as well. For now for more about Washington and the Civil War, see Chapter 16 of Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War.
Let us go back, then, to the winter of 1777, the “year of the three sevens” and the time when the American Revolution almost collapsed. It was a starving time for Washington’s army at Valley Forge: the troops were ill fed, ill clothed and freezing in their hovels. The Continental Congress, as Congress does today, did nothing to help. The well fed politicians were little concerned with those who were fighting and dying at the front; they were very concerned about protecting they and their rich patron’s wealth and privilege and not the Republic. The troops were starving, barefoot, were not being paid and on the verge of mutiny. Washington begged and pleaded for blankets, clothing and food, all to no avail; he was in fact on the verge of resigning as commander of the army. Against this background occurred an uncanny incident which has long been rumored about, but which we have a lone witness to its truth.
Our sole source for this incident was a soldier named Anthony Sherman. His account was first published in the 1840’s, in an obscure journal now unobtainable at any price. Fortunately, his account was reprinted after the Civil War in the National Tribune, a newspaper published for the benefit of Union veterans, mainly to enable them to get pensions from the Federal Government. As with the VA today, veterans and widows were often frustrated dealing with the government that they had defended, fought, and died or were disabled protecting. His account, having been told well before the Civil War, gains additional credibility thereby.
Sherman (no relation to the general) was an ordinary soldier, posted to Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge at the time. One day, General Washington emerged from his private quarters, where he had been alone for some time. Emerging visibly shaken, he began to relate what he had experienced to a trusted aide (Sherman does not say whom, but it was likely Alexander Hamilton). Sherman was close enough to the two to hear what Washington said, and what the general had to say remained seared into Sherman’s memory.
Washington, alone at the time, was in his office praying. Now in normal times Washington was not an overly religious. Washington was a product of the enlightenment, when most educated gentlemen regarded God (if they regarded him at all) as a sort of divine “clock-maker” who wound up the universe and then stood back and watched it move on its own. However, the winter of 1777-78 was “the time that tries men’s souls” and that winter Washington if fact prayed quite a bit for divine guidance.
Washington was in his office, alone, when he became aware of a presence in the room. He said it was “a singularly beautiful being,” with whom the general tried to communicate. After he addressed the figure several times, she finally responded. The room’s walls seemed to disappear and his surroundings became luminous.
‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ she said to Washington, and then spread out her hand in a sweeping gesture several times. Each time an angelic being dipped water from the ocean and cast it over the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa. On the third such cast “from Africa I saw an ill-omened specter approach our land,” Sherman heard Washington say. The imagery as reported later was complex; visions of war and destruction, the blasting of trumpets and other scenes which seemed to presage war and ultimate victory. Clearly, at least part of this version related to the Civil War.
Not surprisingly, ever since this account was first published, there have been professional debunkers ever eager to disprove its veracity. One industrious researcher located the records of a young officer of the Revolution and triumphantly announced the story a fake, because the Anthony Sherman in question had been at Saratoga and not at Valley Forge. Of course, debunkers always go for pat answers and the fact that there very well may have been more than one soldier named Sherman in service during the American Revolution never entered his closed mind. Any researcher or genealogist dealing with old records is aware how fragmentary such records often are: muster lists and service records get lost, court house archives burn up in fires and the like. But the professional debunkers prefer to ignore such realities in their quest to prove their a priori assumptions.
When dealing with prophecy, of course, we are always dealing with a two edged sword. Prophecies are generally committed to paper years after the events have come true, they often have cryptic symbolism and when based on only one reporter’s account it is easy enough to discount. In this case, while another version of the prophecy seems to have been previously published well before the war, that original publication, like many early American periodicals, has not survived. The earliest extant publication is by an erstwhile Philadelphia journalist and dates to the eve of the Civil War, when many such prophecies about the onset of war were in the air.
Even so, the account as published on the eve of war related to far more than just the onset of the Civil War. For one thing, “the singularly beautiful being” also says to Washington, ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh; look and learn.’ If this were just propaganda meant for the northern public on the eve of Civil War, why would it refer to future generations?
Moreover, the beatific being also interprets the visions he has seen thusly: ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted. Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but in this greatest conflict the whole world united shall not prevail against her.’
While the first conflict she mentions is easily dismissed as the Civil War, the second and third are not. While one can put whatever spin on them one wants, it takes no Nostradamus to interpret the second and third “perils” as the two world wars, and the third conflict in particular as World War II, which was indeed the “greatest conflict” and where indeed for a time it seemed the Axis Powers would take over the “whole world.” The professional debunkers of this prophecy conveniently leave out these parts of the prophecy, which clearly do not fit their smug theories and which, if they do not “prove” it, certainly give the prophecy much greater credibility to the modern reader.
As to who or what the “singularly beautiful being” may have been, several theories have been put forward. Some say the apparition was an angel; others say it was the Virgin Mary, who has been known to appear and deliver prophecies in that manner; more recently, the show Ancient Aliens theorized that she was an Alien (of course). However, the 1859 version makes no such assertions, so the reader is left to add their own speculations to the others.
Of course, as with any prophecy, one is free to believe or disbelieve, or to interpret it as one wishes. However, prophecies, it should be remembered, are not inevitable–they are warnings. While one can always ignore a warning, it is generally not wise to do so.
In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black. In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South. Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more. Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.
While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin. An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.
I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland. My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County. So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy. The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.
Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like. No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.
In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids. At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague. Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending. In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.
Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years. By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend. So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.
Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.
Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.
In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night. Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children. She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.
At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated. Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known. Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.
Many’s the man who they say has met the devil and won, but I don’t know of anyone who’ll look you straight in the face and say they did. Daniel Webster supposedly did; Andrew Jackson confronted the Bell Witch, but even he didn’t claim to have bested the hag. Let me add to the list names you never heard of before, and probably never will again: John Chesselden and James Arkins.
They were just two country boys, living out beyond the bounds of civilized society, in what is today Arkansas but back in 1784 wasn’t even considered part of the U.S. One bright May day they left the frontier settlement of Kenfry in the northeast part of the territory to visit a friend in an outlying hamlet.
The distance as the crow flies was about twenty-five miles, but they had to pass through a forest called Varnum’s Wood, which had a reputation for being haunted. Why, only a few days before, one of the boys said, old Isaac King had encountered the Devil himself and barely escaped with his life. His friend scoffed at the tale and then in a prideful boast declared he was not scared of any demon and defied Old Scratch to appear.
Pride goeth before the fall, they say, and not longer after his prideful boast, the two lads encountered a puff of black smoke and a strange beast which soon congealed into something resembling a human—only a human without a head and hovering eight feet above the ground. Even without a head, however, the Demon talked up a storm, tempting the two boys with thrones and dominions beyond the ken of mortal men.
Of all that befell the lads that day, I haven’t room here to say; and, anyway, I gave a complete account of it in Chapter 6 of Dixie Spirits. That and other true tales that defy logic and reason unfold as best as can be told by this humble scribe. Suffice it to say that the two young men only just escaped being dragged to Hell. When they made it to safety, few would believe their tale, until they showed the local folk where the demon had moved a giant boulder; a boulder so big a dozen men couldn’t move it if they tried.
So if you wander in a haunted wood during the dark of the moon, I advise you to not tempt the Devil, else Old Nick takes you up on your offer. And if all I say is not the gospel truth, well, then: God Bless the Devil!
The Great West Tennessee Haunt Hunt: Bolivar, Tennessee
Between Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, lies the scenic West Tennessee city of Bolivar. To the casual visitor it is a placid and serene city, filled with friendly folk where nothing untoward ever occurs.
Beneath the idyllic surface of Bolivar, however, flows an undertow of supernatural strangeness. While Bolivar may not be a big bustling metropolis like Memphis, Knoxville or Nashville, where it excels those towns is in the density and intensity of paranormal phenomena there per haunted hectare.
Perhaps the most famous and most beloved apparition in Bolivar must certainly be “Uncle Dave.” In life, Uncle Cave Parran was a daily sight at his place of business in the quaint town square.
But where Uncle Dave was most seen was on the front porch of his home, Wren’s Nest, rocking back and forth on his old rocking chair. He would wave and say hello and engage in conversation all who passed by. Everyone in Bolivar knew and loved Uncle Dave till the day he died at age 86.
Then something strange happened; Uncle Dave refused to leave Wren’s Nest even in death. Some folk have even claimed to see him on the front porch; mostly, though, the rocking chair just rocks back and forth on its own, as if some invisible soul still occupies it.
Not far from Wren’s Nest sits the majestic McNeal Place. Though both are haunted, both buildings and hauntings are like night and day. Uncle Dave’s home is a comfy homespun old home; McNeal Place is more like a Renaissance Villa. While Uncle Dave is about as congenial a haunt as one could wish for, the restless spirit of McNeal Place is doleful and sad and often visits the graveyard where her young daughter was lain to rest. Griefs know no boundary—not even the boundary of death.
But some who know more about the spirits of McNeal Place than I would argue that the old manse is not a morbid place but one filled with “glamor, hardship, romance and secrets.” At least some of the ghosts that reside there are not sad: one person who knows the place well avers that “Miss Polk is a funny little monkey of a spirit. She can and will scare the soles off your shoes. I was just one who “got ” her. I was a bit shocked at first encounter, then I just smiled and I felt her wink back.” Several spirits are reported to “run amuck” inside; but then it’s their residence–not ours!
Less accessible than these haunts are the ghosts which inhabit Western Mental Health Institute. While these days large prison-like insane asylums are ill favored, in its heyday WMHI was jam packed, not only with the legitimately insane, but with persons whom today we would call rebellious, lascivious or unconventional.
Lobotomies, shock therapy, chaining and medieval like torture were the rule of the day. Old asylums were a literal chamber of horrors. Many people died from such treatment and some of their spirits abide in WMHI and other old institutions.
Today mental health is more enlightened and Western has far fewer inmates than once it held. Present and former staff and patients alike testify to the ghosts who actively haunt its grounds, but wannabe ghost-busters are advised not to investigate on their own. The old hospital itself is closed to the public and while the local ghosts may not bother you, the local constabulary most certainly will.
If you wish to get up close and personal with the dearly departed, you would be well advised to spend a weekend at Magnolia Manor. An elegant antebellum home converted to a comfortable bed and breakfast it has beautiful antiques in each room—and a gaggle of ghosts to go along with them.
During the Civil War, Generals Grant and Sherman stayed at Magnolia Manor there are many tales to be told of the Yankee occupation. In the years since the Late Unpleasantness, a host of ghosts have accumulated within its walls and on the surrounding grounds.
Contrary to the pseudo-spooky hooey you see on TV these days, there is little to fear from the ghosts which haunt most houses and certainly those at Magnolia Manor are no different. Consider it from the ghost’s perspective: they are the permanent residents—you are the intruder. But they are hospitable haints and if you don’t bother them–or go shouting at them like some damn fools on television like to do–then they probably will not unduly disturb you!
While ghosts are to encountered just about anywhere one can imagine, some places seem particularly congenial to spectral visitation. Theaters seem to be particularly prone to paranormal activity, nor are operas the only phantom plagued places they stay. Theater people have long been aware of that fact. That is why, after a play or musical, when the work crew comes out to clean up, they place a large upright pole with a bare bulb in it in the middle of the stage. It is called a “ghost light” and it is not there for illumination, but to drive away the ghosts that come out when the audience leaves.
To look at the Bijou, located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, you would not know how old the building is, nor guess how much history it has seen. Its origin goes back to 1817, beginning it existence as the Lamar House, a trendy upscale hotel of the early nineteenth century. In the 1850’s it was expanded and was known for awhile as “Coleman House” (no relation) and during the Civil War the Yankees commandeered the hotel and turned it into a hospital, where among the many who died were Union general William P. Sanders. After the war it again was a hotspot for the rich and posh.
It was in 1909 that a theater was added to the old building and for many decades it held both live performances and movies, and many famous performers played there. After World War II, however, it began a gradual decline, eventually the theater began showing porno movies, while the hotel section turned into a fleabag flophouse. In recent years, however, the Bijou has been restored and now is a venerated performance venue again. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is its reputation as a most haunted theater.
In the old hotel section of the building, more than one person has seen the ghost of General Sanders haunting the room where he died. After many years of reports by backstage crews and other employees, several the ghost hunting groups have tread its boards including the East Tennessee Paranormal Society, which conducted several investigation onsite and turned up some interesting results, including inexplicable recordings and some rather strange photographic evidence. Investigators have also witnessed uncanny shadows not caused by any known light source, which they also took to be evidence of spectral activity.
Besides the General, what seem to be the spirits of former performers also haunt the Bijou, as well as the ghosts of a few shady ladies who may have met an unseemly end at the hands of their customers. For details about the Bijou and its gaggle of ghosts, see Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Of course, the Bijou is open for live performances as well as for special events, so if you go, you too may encounter one of the ghosts, but if you do don’t blame me—you were warned.